This is the third of ten Oscar Countdown posts from Zuzana Urbanek, where she reviews the Best Picture nominees, and gives her own predictions on who will win.
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Hmm, maybe I missed something. (But maybe not, since the film has received mixed reviews, with some echoing a bit of the disconnect I felt.) Before seeing Beasts, I avoiding as much as possible reading about it or learning any more than I had to from the constant hype about how great it is. I wanted to see it with no expectations. So, I watched, fully open to seeing a film with a compelling story or unique point of view.
Sadly, as a film, Beasts is neither revolutionary nor beautiful. It has its moments of thought-provocation and a cast that carries the narrative admirably, but the story itself is muddled and seems to send mixed messages at best. It’s the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl growing up in a condemned area of the bayou, living with (but apart from) her father, who really does not take care of her in any real sense. They, along with other members of their small community, refuse to leave the dangerous area and are under constant threat of losing their homes when the waters rise. At the same time, Hushpuppy imagines the ice caps melting and scary beasts being released from the ice and coming to attack them. So, it’s either the ice caps or a storm that will make the waters rise and destroy their homes. Oh, and Hushpuppy is determined to find her mother before all this happens. And somehow, she also is the glue that binds the community. It’s a lot to take in, sort out, and keep straight.
After seeing this film, a bit confused about what exactly it was trying to say, I finally began to read about why it was made and what it was supposed to be about. I learned that it was a long-term struggle for director Benh Zeitlin (who hails from Queens and has made only short films before this) to make the feature that speaks to the devastation and subsequent mismanagement experienced by victims of Hurricane Katrina and is based on a one-act play called Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar. There is also a subplot, rooted in Hushpuppy’s imagination, that entails the polar ice caps melting and extinct beasts that used to eat everything in sight being released from their icy tombs.
All right, I thought, so there are some political agendas that the films address and, hence, was rewarded with a nomination. Now I get it … partly.
However, if it is meant to be sympathetic to the plight of those affected by Katrina, then it does them no favors. It portrays the people who are caught in this particular disaster area as irresponsible derelicts who live in unsanitary filth, and make it a point of pride to remain that way. Those who try to help them are mere caricatures, inept and unfeeling. And how do the indelibly affected residents try to get their lives back? Through an act of sabotage that brings others into their disastrous circumstances so that everyone is left with nothing.
There is another oddly political or maybe “Let’s show how radical and avant-garde we are here at the Academy!” aspect to the nominations for this film. Quvenzhané Wallis is up for a best actress award. She is certainly precocious and surprising, at times pretty amazing to watch. But at her young age (she was just five when she was cast in the role), is she really “acting” to the point of earning a nomination for best actress?
Don’t get me wrong. The film is not a complete disaster, not in the least. It has some wonderful moments of complex father-daughter relationship, and Hushpuppy’s wild imagination alone is a sight to behold. But these worthwhile moments get lost in the jumbled and cluttered story. The film is more like an interesting film school experiment than a polished, top-award-worthy contender. I’m glad that I saw it, but never in a million years would I think it should be chosen for the top honor at the Academy Awards.